Mr. Microphone

Abe Jacob, one of the country's leading theatrical sound designers, has a complaint. Everyone's a would-be expert about sound. "In a play, especially a musical, the sound is always criticized in one of two ways--either it's too loud, or why do you need sound at all?" he grumbles. "I never hear people say the lights are too bright, or the costumes are the wrong color. Sound is the most subjective part of a production. Everyone wants a show to sound like Surroundsound, or like their CDs at home."

Jacob, who has worked for the Broadway stage and major concerts during three decades, brings his expertise to Herberger Theater Center this week with Arizona Theatre Company's Five Guys Named Moe. For Jacob, the musical review is more than just another job; it's an Arizona homecoming. Raised in Tucson until he was 12 years old, Jacob, now 53, maintains a midtown east-side apartment in Manhattan where he works as resident sound consultant for New York City Opera.

It's not only the public that kvetches about sound, he says.
"In the theater, everyone knows two jobs--their own, and sound," Jacob gripes; but few know the subtleties of sound better than he. Five Guys Named Moe appears a straightforward job--singers, musicians, a few special effects to deal with such as tap dancing and an audience conga line--but its execution draws on an innovation Jacob claims as his own. Each of the five Moes and the sixth character, Nomax, wears a microphone within a few inches of his mouth. Each actor's mike is connected to a transmitter, powered by double-A batteries, usually hidden in a back pocket. The transmitters' electronic signals make their way to a central sound board, where each voice can be modulated, intensified, delayed a fraction of a second, made louder or softer, sharper or fuzzier.

Jacob's contribution to this process was the positioning of the microphones. It started in Bob Fosse's 1975 production of Chicago, when actress and choreographer Gwen Verdon, for many years Fosse's amanuensis, wore only a nightgown.

"Using a lavaliere was out of the question. I came up with the idea of hiding a small mike in her hairline." Before, when lavalieres were clipped to shirts and blouses as they still are on television talk shows, clothes that rustled, or actors who embraced, could jostle the mike or muffle the dialogue. Shaking heads and sweeping hand gestures could make normal voices unexpectedly rise, then fall, shout, then whisper. With the mike hidden on the head itself, all of those problems were swept away, and a uniform sound resulted. "That's how it started. It amplifies the natural voice. It became very popular."

Jacob uses microphones that are sensitive and small. They can pick up a lightly cleared throat, and take up no more space than a vitamin capsule. I've pulled slivers of cactus from my foot thicker than the mikes Jacob uses.

Five Guys presents a problem of sorts: Four of the six actors are bald or near-bald. "For three of the Moes, we've put mikes over their ears," Jacob explains. "Four-Eyed Moe's is attached to the tip of his glasses. Big Moe's mike is in his hair. Nomax's is hidden in his cap." Jacob's idea caught on in England about 10 years ago when they used it for the London productions of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. When Les Miserables opened in London, microphones were neatly hidden in the wigs.

Six Phoenix musicians, most of them regulars with ATC, play 25 Louis Jordan songs, from "Messy Bessy" and "I Like Them Fat Like That" to "Reet Petite & Gone" and "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie." In the first act, the musicians are behind a screen at the rear of the stage. "They give a sense of illusion," Jacob says, "as if you're hearing and seeing them through a window." The musicians are visible for most of the second act as the house band at the nicely named Funky Butt Club. "I wanted a natural 1950s sound as listened to with contemporary ears. The music is so important we're using large loudspeakers, but they're hidden behind black flats on both sides of the stage. If the sound is physically invisible, the audience pays more attention to what's going on onstage."

Jacob himself was once onstage, in his youth playing Abe Lincoln's son Tad in one of the late, legendary Peter Morroney's productions at the University of Arizona. He played piano, too, when he was young, but left the stage and the keyboard for the ear and the sound board. After Loyola University, Jacob worked for a San Francisco outfit, and in 1967 found himself doing sound for the famous Monterrey Pop Festival. His resume began to fill up with stars: Jimi Hendrix's first major U.S. tour ("all our equipment, instruments, lights and sound, fit into one 19-foot Ryder truck"); coast-to-coast with Peter, Paul and Mary ("six of us, including the three of them, crossed the country in two station wagons"); Herb Alpert; Blood, Sweat & Tears. He ran Hendrix's Electric Lady Studio in New York for a year, but soon shifted from rock 'n' roll to the Broadway stage.

Jacob now is executive secretary of the Theatrical Sound Designers Association. And if Jimi Hendrix's hair could hide a bouquet of microphones, Jacob's thinning mane would require his mike to be hooked over his ear. He's short and a bit heavy, with a nicely polished sense of humor.

He rates his personal sound system at home only a medium. "I'm not there enough to warrant top-of-the-line equipment." And although he was cautious not to criticize outright the current wundersound, the Bose Acoustic Wave, he allows that it sacrifices the middle range of music for the highs and lows.

Sometimes his expertise leads him into playing audio detective. For example, a priest in California once called him in to his church. "Something must be wrong," the father said.

"Recently, parishioners have been complaining that our sound system isn't working as it used to." Jacob checked it out--cables, switches, power--and found everything in working order. It had nothing to do with the microphones, the wires or the speakers.

"The problem," Jacob now relates, "was that before, they always said Mass in Latin and no one cared how it came out. But when they switched to English, all of a sudden parishioners noticed how it sounded. The sound system hadn't changed; the language they said Mass in had."

And now they needed to hear the actual words. At least that time it wasn't the sound man's fault.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of Five Guys Named Moe continues through Sunday, January 25, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more information, see Friday in Calendar.

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Tom Miller